Sunday, November 30, 2008
Today’s guest blogger needs no introduction to Canadian mystery readers. Linda Wiken is the owner of Prime Crime Mystery bookstore in Ottawa, our nation’s capital. (http://www.primecrimebooks.com)
About all most of my American friends know about Ottawa is that it is the world’s second-coldest capital city (beaten by Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia).
Ottawa’s reputation as being cold and sterile is massively unwarranted. Ottawa is a fabulous city for a short vacation. It’s truly beautiful, particularly in spring and summer, packed with museums and art galleries, open air markets, good restaurants and wine bars, bike trails and walking paths and the world’s largest outdoor skating rink. Prime Crime is the perfect mystery bookstore, small and cozy, but packed with anything and everything mystery-related you’d want to read. It is located in the charming Glebe neighbourhood on a street of small, independently-owned shops.
As an added bonus: come to Ottawa this week and you might see Stephen Harper running for his life.
Here is Linda’s suggestions for that reader on your list. Someone once said that the essence of all mystery must be tragedy, and Linda’s essay is a reminder of that.
It struck me this morning as I listened to The Current on CBC Radio One, that I'm reading far too many mysteries these days that are set in war zones. The documentary in question was about a US medic made famous by having his photo taken carrying an Iraqi child whose leg had been blown off. It symbolized at that point, the 'help' that was being given the innocent victims. The follow-up story was about how this medic, now back in the US for awhile, had recently been sniffing inhalants and hallucinating about being back in Iraq and under attack. He died at home, certain the Iraqi soldiers were breaking into his house. An example of the tragedy that continues long after these young men come safely home.
The story brought to mind the novel, "The Painter of Battles" by Arturo Perez-Reverte. He's a terrific writer and this is one of his most compelling works. In the book, the 'painter's' photograph also makes the international media, a picture of a Croatian soldier in retreat. The aftermath of that photo and how it plays out on the lives of the soldier's family, leads to retribution and an ending both fitting and bleak.
The second novel, also recently read, was by Matt Beynon Rees, "The Prisoner of Gaza", the second in his series which features a Palestinian teacher as the main character. This series had already focused my thoughts on the horror of daily life for the innocent citizens in that tragic part of the world. The news today contained a grim reminder of that story.
These are two novels that have stayed with me....disturbing stories interwoven with suspense and mystery. Excellent reads, both. Could it be life imitating fiction?
The next book on my pile of TBRs is "That Summer in Sicily" by Marlena de Blasi....not a mystery, but certain fiction I'd love to be imitating on these cold, near-winter days
Saturday, November 29, 2008
I haven’t commented on this latest topic about the effect of the economic downturn on independent book stores and the publishing industry as a whole. I don’t know what to say. I have no idea where things are going, or what we’re doing in this handbasket. All I can tell you is that books are the overriding passion of my life. They have given me hope and comfort in the midst of some very dark times, and in the midst of good times, they have lifted me to heights I didn’t know I was capable of. I cannot do without them. There cannot be any better gift to feed the soul than a book.
Trying to recommend five 2008 books by people I don’t know is tough - not because I haven’t read 5 2008 books, because I certainly have. But how can I pick the best ones? They’re all worth their weight in gold.
How about Water For Elephants, by Sara Gruon? When things get tough, the tough run off and join the circus. What a tale.
Run, by Ann Patchett. OMG.
I’m an absolute sucker for historical fiction. I’d read Steven Pressfield’s grocery list. No one else I’ve ever read can make a soldier’s life seem like a such a combination of absurdity and spiritual journey. This year, he released Killing Rommel. Don’t miss any of his Greek historicals, either. (He’s the man who wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance. If you only saw the movie, you have no idea how wonderful the book is.)
Okay, speaking of historicals, Steven Saylor issued another “Gordianus the Finder” book this year - The Triumph of Caesar. His epic Roma was no slouch, either.
Julia Spencer-Fleming’s I Shall Not Want and Laurie King’s Touchstone are a bit of a cheat, since I have met and like these women, but neither would probably recognize me across a crowded room, so I’m stretching it a bit.
The last couple of books I want to recommend aren’t 2008 books, but they are good for what ails you, so I’ll mention Sue Monk Kidd’s The Mermaid Chair, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and if there is anyone out there who hasn’t read Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert, treat yourself, then give it to somebody for Christmas.
I read and enjoyed many non-fiction books, too, but I don’t want you to take issue with what a pinko/airy-fairy I am, so I’ve listed mostly fiction books here.
I’d love to hear what you Dear Readers would recommend.
Friday, November 28, 2008
The holidays (pick your favorite) are upon us and as a bit of public service, we here at Type M are noting some great gift ideas that you absolutely must keep in mind as you buy gifts for the undeserving and never grateful enough people on your list. Keeping with Rick’s broadside on books (below), we are suggesting—nay, requiring—that you head directly to your local independent bookstore and buy multiple copies of each book we suggest.
Naturally, we would hope that you’d put ours on that list, but just to make it interesting, our self-imposed criteria requires us to only name books that are not written by friends and to books published in the past 12 months. Okay, we are willing to bend the later rule but not the former, so if you are a fellow author and don’t see your name on my list. Rest assured I would have put your book at the very top if it wasn’t for this darn rule.
Without further ado, and in no particular order, my suggestions:
The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti
Lush Life by Richard Price
Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hajdu
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (Okay, it’s published in 2006, but I didn’t buy it until 2008 and it’s staying on my list.)
Head Games by Craig McDonald
Clothing Optional by Alen Zweibel
Why We Hate Us by Dick Meyer
Crossing the Rhine: Breaking into Nazi Germany 1944 and 1945 by Lloyd Clark
Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar by Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein
Advertising is Dead: Long Live Advertising! by Tom Himpe & Will Collin
Thursday, November 27, 2008
“the country’s best-paid bankers were overrated dopes who had no idea what they were selling, or greedy cynics who did know and turned a blind eye. But it wasn’t only the bankers. This financial meltdown involved a broad national breakdown in personal responsibility, government regulation and financial ethics.”
Since we’re readers and writers, and we’ve been speaking of hard times in terms of falling book sales, here’s some disturbing news pertaining to the publishing industry: Sarah Palin may earn as much as U.S. $7 million for a book about her experiences in the campaign for Vice President. (At least that’s what I think it’s about. Who knows? Maybe it’s about moose hunting by helicopter.)
This was on an Australian website for the Canberra Times: "Every publisher and a lot of literary agents have been going after her," said Jeff Klein of Folio Literary management.
"She's poised to make a ton of money," public relations expert Howard Rubenstein said.
A spokesman for publisher Random House told the New York Post: "There are several of our imprints who are eager to talk to Governor Palin. She clearly has a constituency and we know books by conservatively-centred politicos usually sell very, very well."
Now we’ve asked this question before, but it pays to revisit it. How many books does Random House have to sell to break even? Especially after they pour a few hundred thousand (at least) into promotion.
I’m not saying every publishing house is run by idiots, nor is every U.S. business. But what can the every-day citizen do about the ongoing mess? I don’t know all the answers, but grass-roots activities might be a good start. We can buy local, with careful attention to quality and good business practices.
Here’s a way to start—an excellent suggestion by Charles Benoit, which supports my grass-roots theory. We bloggers are going to list five books that we’d recommend as holiday gifts. Our requirements are that the book not be written by a friend and that the book be published in ’08. This was harder than I thought. I ended up including one published in ’07. It was too good to be left out. Here goes:
1. Kate Atkinson, When Will There be Good News, Little, Brown, and Company, 2008
2. Craig Johnson, Another Man’s Moccasins, Viking Penguin, 2008
3. April Smith, Judas Horse, Knopf, 2008
4. Minette Walters, The Chameleon’s Shadow, Knopf, 2008
5. Stieg Larsson, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Knopf, 2008.
6. Steven Johnson, The Ghost Map, Penguin Books, 2007.
Just in case you don’t have access to a good independent bookstore, here are some I recommend. They all ship books.
The Poisoned Pen, http://www.poisonedpen.com/
M is for Mystery, http://www.mformystery.com/
Mysteries to Die For, http://www.mysteriestodiefor.com/
Mysterious Galaxy, http://mysteriousgalaxy.booksense.com/NASApp/store/IndexJsp
The Mystery Bookstore (L.A.) http://www.mystery-bookstore.com
The Mystery Company, http://www.themysterycompany.com/
Book Passage, http://www.bookpassage.com/
And many others
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
At very long last, I've just finished the first draft of my current novel and now would be the time to tell you all about it.
But today is not that day.
Occasionally, we have to stop prattling on about ourselves and our books for a higher cause.
I received an email last week from Sean Chercover, one of our recent guest bloggers. Since he's also a good writer, I might as well let him speak:
"So I've been on tour and seeing a lot of empty bookstores and frightened bookstore owners. This economic downturn thing is hitting them very hard. People are not buying books. I've talked with folks in sales, editorial and publicity at two publishing houses (one huge, one indie), and all say that this is very serious -- layoffs are coming in the new year.
"Doom and gloom, I know. Anyway, I mentioned to one of these publishing people that I was gonna blog about this -- basically encouraging people to buy books this holiday season. Not that it will make any difference. Her response was, "Please! And please ask any other authors who blog to do the same! We're desperate."
So that's it in a nutshell. To all of you out there, writers, readers, anyone buying presents: think books this year. They don't necessarily have to be crime fiction. Go into your local bookstore, whether it be a small independent (who really need your help) or one of the big chain stores. Buy books and make a difference!
They make fantastic gifts, and if you really choose wisely, that gift can be life-altering. At the very least, you'll provide someone with several hours of pleasure -- and memories that may well last longer than that bottle of wine or box of chocolates. Three of my four favorite books, ones I've read over and over, were given to me as presents.
I don't share Sean's feelings that we can't make a difference. The largest floods start with tiny trickles. Get out there, talk to those people you know who love books, tell them what I'm telling you -- and tell them to pass the word on. I am now, and I will continue: to all those people to whom I usually send the latest stupid joke or funny video. But especially tell the book lovers.
This Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanzaa think books!
Monday, November 24, 2008
Donis wrote this week about problems and rewards in trying to capture the speech of her ancestors in her writing.
A very timely topic for me, as I’ve just begin work on a standalone novel that takes place totally in Scotland. The location is necessary in this case (either Scotland or Ireland) as the book is intended to be a fairly traditional ‘gothic’ with a very modern twist. Hands up everyone who read Victoria Holt as a young woman. (I’m guessing that no one read Victoria Holt as a young man – feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.)
You know the thing – castles, fog, moody handsome gardener, Cook (with a capital ‘C’) and something (maybe) moving in the old ruins. My problem is that I have no ear for accents whatsoever. I don’t intend for my rustic locals to speak in dialect the whole time – nothing slows down a book faster than having to pronounce every word to decipher the meaning – but I would like to toss in a bit of an accent. Perhaps just the minor characters such as those the protagonist comes across in town, or when the character first speaks, or just for emphasis.
I am still debating with myself (in my upper-class Canadian accent, of course*).
There isn’t much worse, in life or literature, than trying for an accent and failing to get it right**
Any and all advice accepted. Who do you think does dialect right, and who doesn’t?
*(Charles is one of the very few people in the world who does a Canadian accent – here is that sentence written in Canadaese: “I’m... debating with....my...self, eh?)
**Notable exception of Peter Sellers as Insp. Clouseau followed by that guy from Montreal who convinced Sara Palin that he was the president of France.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
As you Dear Readers know, I was unable to attend the Women Writing the West Conference due to a family emergency. This is an excellent conference and a wonderful group of writers, and I was sorry I couldn't report to you about the conference this year. Fortunately, today's guest blogger, Ann Parker, comes to the rescue. Ann is the author of two critically acclaimed historical mysteries set in the during the silver rush in 1880's Leadville, Colorado. Ann's Silver Lies won the Willa Award for Historical Fiction, and her second book, Iron Ties, received the Colorado Book Award.
A Like-Minded Circle of Friends …
Attending the Women Writing the West (WWW) conference in San Antonio this October was a bit like coming home after a long absence.
Don’t get me wrong, I love mystery cons as well and have attended my share, as a mystery author and even before that, when being published (heck, of finishing my first draft) was but wishful thinking.
But Women Writing the West is different. Not better … just different. At the latest WWW conference, I rubbed elbows with poets, nonfiction and creative nonfiction writers, and authors of contemporary fiction, historical fiction, children’s books, young adult ... and yes, mysteries. Add into this mix a healthy smattering of editors, agents, publishers, and a movie producer. What brought us all together? A passion for the American West, past and present, its women, and their stories. Former WWW President Jane Kirkpatrick summed it up nicely when she said: “Women Writing the West [grew] from the ideas of a few good women to the ideas of many with the focus on the western landscape and themes and the roles of women within them.”
So, what is the West? It's a geographical area, certainly. It's those wide-open spaces in Wyoming and Texas, but it's also Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and the ubiquitous freeways. But beyond that, the West represents a way of thinking, a sense of adventure, a willingness to cross into a new frontier.
So, there I was, in San Antonio, Texas, taking on a new frontier (for me anyway) and picking up a few history lessons in the preconference tour of the Alamo. THE Alamo. My first thought on seeing THE Alamo was "Wow, smaller than I thought." Closely followed by a quick memory flash of John Wayne (a la Davy Crockett). But that didn't stop me from being awed by the history and the "feel" of the place. After the Alamo, we toured the Menger Hotel, built in 1859 (anything built in 18-whatever gets my attention pretty fast), and strolled through the Riverwalk area.
Having got my "history fix," I was now looking forward to the panels and workshops, and to catching up with folks I hadn't seen (except in virtual space) for several years. The panels included writers talking about how they got started, a discussion of "pitching" (Describe your book in 10 seconds/two sentences? I can always use help with that!), and the ubiquitous agents/editors/publishers panel … always interesting… And it was great to hear the agents/editors/publishers encouraging us to SUBMIT our work, rather than saying "there's no room at the inn" (which is sadly often the message these days). Workshops covered a variety of topics including writing small town and regional histories, what's new in the children's/YA market, and, of course, marketing … a topic near and dear to us all.
In between the conscientious note taking, we applauded the pronouncements of "cowboy poets," cheered on the winners and finalists of the Willa Awards, consumed far too much food, coffee, and chocolate, and exchanged news and views on this writing project and that manuscript. I gathered up a wallet-full of business cards and bought way too many books.
All in all, I rode away (well, flew away, actually), into the sunset, feeling renewed and, once again, ready to (metaphorically speaking) hitch up the horses, fill the canteens, settle my hat, and get busy working the little corner of the American West I've staked out through my Silver Rush mysteries. And isn't that what a good conference should inspire us to do, after all? Get busy and get down to the business of writing?
For more information:
Women Writing the West HYPERLINK "http://www.womenwritingthewest.org/" http://www.womenwritingthewest.org/
The Menger Hotel: HYPERLINK "http://mengerhotel.com/page/ntm5/The_Menger_History.html" http://mengerhotel.com/page/ntm5/The_Menger_History.html
Check out Ann's web site at http://www.annparker.net
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Ah, the joy of reviews. I too have heard that Harriet Klausner has never met a book she didn’t like, but when it’s your book she’s praising, it’s hard not to think that in that one case, at least, she’s particularly insightful.
I am fascinated by my reviews. They teach me a lot, sometimes stroke my ego, sometimes make me want to stop writing and take up ditch digging. Often they tell me more about the reviewer than the book. Readers will often love something about your writing that you never anticipated. For me, I’ve been amazed at how readers have taken to the recipes in the books. Apparently people love to read about food.
A few months ago I found a new review of The Old Buzzard Had It Coming that appeared in the Norman Transcript. This is the Norman, Oklahoma, daily newspaper, so I was glad to see that they had reviewed the book. We lived in Norman for several years in our youth, so I feel rather like Norman is “back home”.
I’m afraid I don’t know the name of the person who reviewed the book for the paper. The byline is just “staff writer”. I cannot tell if the writer is a man or a woman, so I’ll just vary my pronouns when I refer to her. The review is generally good - he says many very nice things about the book, all of which I appreciated very much. However, she didn’t like the dialog — or more precisely, the dialect — at all. To wit : “…Alafair Tucker is a unique character with depth and intelligence. She’s strong, makes a mean peach pie and can gossip with the best of ‘em — but she doesn’t sound like it. In between wonderful insights and a nice background tale of early Oklahoma life, Casey forces her heroine to spout cliches like ‘I’ll swan’...”
I have a distinct feeling that this reviewer is young, and that he is an intellectual. I also have an instinct that she’s a native Oklahoman and very concerned about sounding like a hick. I know the feeling.
I’m very very aware of dialect when I write, and often worried about it, too. I do in fact use terms and phrases that are now cliche. And the reason is that this is really the way my grandparents talked, all of whom were teens and twenties in the 1910’s. In truth, I don’t write exactly like they talked, because it would not be understandable if I did.
I grew up determined to speak English in as standard a fashion as I could. My parents were college educated, but their parents and older relatives weren’t, so I grew up around country people. My most schooled grandparent graduated from the eighth grade, which was as far as most people in that time and place could go. One grandparent only got as far as the third grade. But just because you didn’t get very far in school doesn’t mean you aren’t smart. Michael Caine, who is Cockney, once said that people too often judge your intelligence by your accent.
Writing dialect is dangerous business, any as any writer knows. It’s really hard not to sound ridiculous, and so most teachers warn students away from it. Now that most people no longer use such a strong dialect, I find that I miss it. To me it sounds like my warm and loving childhood, and that’s why I try to give a flavor of it in my writing. Whether I’ve succeeded or not is debatable, but I’m sure I will continue to try.
Sometimes reviews are weird and interesting, too. Another Buzzard review that I particularly enjoyed came from another web site called My Reading Corner — A Book Review Blog (http://cmbs.cnc.net/readingcorner). This review was posted on Feb. 11, 2006. The reviewer summarizes the plot, then notes: “The writing style is humorous, and odd.”
That pretty much summarizes my view of humankind. All it’s members are very humorous and odd. That includes reviewers.
P.S. tomorrow, our guest blogger is the wonderful Ann Parker, author of Silver Lies, who is going to fill us in on the Women Writing the West conference that I had to miss last month.
Friday, November 21, 2008
Much discussion of late (see my esteemed blogmates below) on the nature of reviews, their role in the marketplace and the questionable ethics of some in that profession, to which I will now add nothing of significance.
1. If X is the amount of time I spend thinking about good reviews, then 10X is the amount of time I spend thinking about bad reviews. They are disproportionate to their actual value, and the more horrendous the review, the greater that disparity.
2. If 10X is the amount of time I spend thinking about bad reviews, then 10X to the 10th power is the amount of time I spend not thinking about reviews at all. Oh, there’s that heady rush of reading reviews when a book comes out, but, unless you’re one of those authors who has a book magically coming out every three months*, a book launch is a—at best—once a year event.** All the rest of an author’s time goes into writing the next one.
3. All as used in the above refers to all time not already committed to sleep, employment or watching episodes of Arrested Development.
4. While a bad review will reduce the chances that I will see a movie, it doesn’t impact my book buying decisions since I have so little time already to spend on reading (see above), the little I have can’t be spent on reading reviews for books I want to read.
5. That said, I do enjoy reading reviews for books I don’t plan on reading. The first thing I read on Sunday mornings is the NY Times Book Review, not because I think I’ll find my name there•, but because it’s interesting to see how far you have to read into the review to discover if the reviewer likes/does not like the book.
6. I also like the ads on the back cover for a bookseller that specializes in rare first editions.
7. Recently there was a great copy of Fleming’s Casino Royal offered (unsigned, dust jacket, fine condition) for $1,700
8. Apparently the key to making money in the book world (and I include authors here) is to correctly predict which books will be worth the most down the road.
9. In 1954, Kirkus said that the writing in Casino Royal was “dressy stuff” and said that the book would only appeal to those with extravagant tastes.
10. Given the above, I plan on getting a copy of Vicki’s Valley of the Lost and keeping it in fine condition, with the dust jacket and maybe even a signature.
* Look for authors with a TM or ® symbol after their name
**Unless you’re me and then it’s a once a lustrum
• If you take the time to rearrange random letters from each review, you will be surprised just how many times my name does in fact appear in the pages of the NY Times Book Review, and, prophetically, The Book of Revelations
Thursday, November 20, 2008
A year or two ago, there was an online article circulating about paid reviewers. It gave hard statistics about people being paid per review submitted to well-respected book reviewers. I can’t find it now, naturally, so if anyone did save it and wants to share, please jump into this discussion. The upshot of the article was that an assortment of marginally qualified (the Sarah Palins of book reviewing, like hungry, bored graduate students and angry, unpublished novelists) people were affecting authors’ sales. Or at least their feelings.
In my search for the elusive article, I did find this information in Wikipedia, which refers to Publishers Weekly reviews: “Although it might take a week or more to read and analyze some books, reviewers were paid $45 per review until June 2008 when the magazine introduced a reduction in payment to $25 a review. In a further policy change that month, reviewers received credit as contributors in issues carrying their reviews.”
Wikipedia included this compelling quote from a Texas novelist and reviewer: “What’s interesting about the PW reviews, though, is that copy is sometimes altered before printing. On a few occasions, I’ve had opinions utterly reversed from what I wrote. I’ve questioned this, but I’ve never received satisfactory answers. I keep doing it because it’s good work and satisfies the university administration.”
This reminds me of Harriet Klausner, who is a prolific reader and reviewer. This woman has to love books. True, her reviews were invariably positive, and I’d often balance her review with the others on a site—but I listened to her and respected her opinion. Yet she has been blasted, smashed, and panned for her optimistic view. The vitriol got so heavy on DorothyL that the moderators forbad further discussion. Amazon downgraded her usefulness.
I do respect a reviewer’s ability to point out problems with plot, writing style, or story, as writers learn from this. But not to the point of being mean (Marilyn Stasio is an excellent example of a kind critic), and he or she should NEVER give away a plot. Those reviewers should have their pens confiscated.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
The thing that has me steamed is that the reviewer was so dumb as to give away critical plot points. That is just plain amateur. Surely this person knows that a reviewer just should not do those sorts of things. It is exceptionally unfair to the writers. The title is "reviewer" or maybe "critic", but it isn't "destroyer". I often will read something that a certain reviewer pans simply because I find that I often feel the opposite of how they do.
However, if you give away crucial plot points, especially for a crime novel, you really ruin the book for everyone else. Hollywood has been known to blackball reviewers for doing this. It simply is not fair and breaks the unwritten agreement which exists between all artists and all reviewers or critics.
But take heart, Vicki! Here is a true story that should at least make you chuckle:
Debussy, the great French composer, was given a truly awful review for the premiere of one of his works. The reviewer went way overboard in his criticism. The next day, in the Letters to the Editor section of that newspaper, a letter from the composer appeared, saying, "Dear Sir, I sit here in the smallest room of my house with your review before me. Soon it will be behind me."
Monday, November 17, 2008
Let’s change the subject, shall we?
I read somewhere that studies show that the more TV people watch, the more likely they are to be fearful of crime and to think that crime is worse than it is. This might explain why, although crime rates in Canada, including murder, have gone steadily down since the 1970s, many people think the rate is up, considerably, and politicians ride that ‘get tough on crime’ bandwagon all the way to the polls.
Which is apropos of nothing, except that I read the police report for Prince Edward County, Ontario, where I live, which is published in the local paper. This is a weekly paper, so I assume the report is for the week. Here is the sum total of the report:
1. A couple of parked cars broken into in the downtown
2. Police observed a man attacking a parking meter and gave chase but the man got away
3. A man reported that someone stole 2 18 litre bottles of water off his front step. He saw the thief put the water into his car (the thief’s car, not the water-owner’s) and phoned police. The thief was arrested and charged.
4. Several cars hit deer on the road and police are warning people to drive with care, particularly at night.
And that’s it.
Kinda thin fodder for the crime writer, isn’t it? And so we must embellish. If Molly Smith was answering the call about the water bottles, she’d find evidence of a kidnapped child being confined in the cellar or a observe a dog digging up the remains of Jimmy Hoffa.
Are we, as mystery writers, making our living (as miserable as that may be) by exploiting crime? Crime happens, even in Prince Edward County (which had its first murder in 20 years a few weeks ago, so all is not completely rosy here). A good crime novel, IMHO, isn’t really about the crime, it’s about people and how people act in a time of great trauma.
It’s called fiction for a reason.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
A heavy mist lay over the city like a shroud...
I suppose it’s only fitting if that city is Belfast.
I just got back from a long weekend there, and as always the emotions run rampant as I put pen to paper. And it rained—it ‘s always raining with that damp cold that gets into your bones and leaves you shaking like a wet dog.
My series character, the Raven, was once one of the most feared paramilitary enforcers during the ‘Troubles,’ which supposedly ended with the Good Friday accord.
However, as I passed through the city and some of the bars the odd snippets of conversation showed that the undercurrents of sectarianism will linger for a good while yet.
Over my four-day sojourn, two GAA clubhouses were fire bombed, an Orange Hall was firebombed in retaliation, the remains of an IRA victim were found, a ‘sophisticated’ three bomb hoax was uncovered near to where I was staying, and there seemed to be a major falling out amongst several terrorists factions who were not in support of the peace process.
The ‘Real IRA’, the INLA, and the Continuity Army council are apparently at odds with one another, so I’m sure a body or two may appear shortly.
All this is grist for the mill, and speaking of grist, I managed to sneak in a quick visit to the Bushmills distillery. They were granted a license to distill in 1608, so this is their 400th anniversary and as good a reason as any to sample their wares.
They make Bushmills regular, Black Bush, which is a higher blend of Rye and whisky and almost got me into big trouble one night in San Diego, but that’s another story, and they have the 12 year and 16 year single malts. Needless to say, my character is fond of Black Bush.
And going through Heathrow was a nightmare in terms of the amount of security checks that are now imposed. I’m going to have to find a better way to get to Belfast.
So there you have it, four days of intense observation, hands on experience, and fodder for many chapters to come...
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Just saw the first review of The Sky Took Him, by the always first, always complimentary Harriet Klausner, who can be counted on to make you want to keep writing.
“...The latest Oklahoma historical amateur sleuth story ... is a fabulous entry in one of the best continuing WWI era sagas. ... Fans will fully appreciate this strong story while thinking the sooner Donis Casey writes her next Tucker tale the better.”
Love it. Thank you, Harriet.
I’m enjoying this thread about character names. I don’t usually have a problem with names, since many of the characters in my series are inspired by or based on actual relatives of mine. And even if they aren’t, my ancestors provide me with the most intriguing list of names to choose from. Most of the time, I don’t have to use any imagination at all. “Alafair” was my great-grandmother’s name. My other great-grandmothers were Selinda, Rena, and Ollie. My grandmothers were Phoebe Lois and Chesner. All the kids in the series are named after relatives, even Gee Dub. Now, how could I make up anything better?
However, as for characters not behaving, I, too, am having as much trouble as my blogmates when it comes to herding the cast of my current book in the direction I hoped they would go. In each of my books, a different one of Alafair’s kids takes a central roll. My dearest wish is to have this book be about one child, but another one of the kids simply will not stay in the background.
When I started this book, the plan was for the action to revolve around the Green Corn Rebellion, which was an aborted Socialist anti-war rebellion that occurred in Oklahoma in August of 1917. Did you know that Oklahoma was quite the leftist state before WWI? I find that fact interesting. My characters, however ... not so much, apparently.
This is becoming entirely exasperating, but what is one to do? You can raise your children in the best manner you know how, but they end up going off and living their own lives in spite of you.
Friday, November 14, 2008
The most important one is a German general, and the name has to match who he is and what he wants most out of life. I guess it doesn’t have to, but it does to me. So I’ve been spending way too much time researching old German names of a certain lineage, double checking to make sure that the name isn’t the same as a real WWII German general since I can only push that historically accurate historical fiction button so many times.
When it clears that hurdle I have to see if I can add a ‘von’ to the front of it. It’s not a requirement for aristocratic German families, but I like the way it looks and sounds. Maybe that goes way back to my youth when my buddy Rick and I (along with a classmate named Greg Tolin…funny how that just came back to me) were obsessed with reading everything about Manfred von Richthofen, aka The Red Baron. Or maybe it’s because of Claus von Stauffenberg, the German general behind the ill-fated bomb plot to kill Hitler. Or maybe it’s because of the great character actor Harvey Lembeck in his signature role as Eric Von Zipper in all those otherwise horrible Beach Movies.
In any case, it’s von for me.
Was it von for you?
Thursday, November 13, 2008
He started out as Rodney. So-so, I thought. Too ordinary for the kind of conflict he's going to have to face. Even Rod, I thought, might not be tough enough, or have enough zing. He is, after all, six-four, two hundred thirty pounds, and was once an offensive lineman for U Washington. He also was an army medic in Kuwait (thanks, Charles! Remember those discussions about putting characters in places the author had never visited?). So I changed his name to Baldwin. His friends called him Bald, which was like calling a big guy Tiny. Bald has a headful of frizzy dark hair. But Bald Rod didn't like that name. It wasn't serious enough for him. So I asked people here in the islands about good Samoan first names. Some suggestions were Itula, Siitupe, Mau, Tiaina, Joseph, or Junior. I didn't want readers to get bogged down with pronunciation, and Junior was too diminutive.
So for a few pages, Bald turned into Joseph, or Joe. But Joe started to wear glasses and wanted to go back to school and get a PhD in political science. Meanwhile, Bald-Joe-Rodney needs to track down the killer of his best friend, which is related to his service in Kuwait, when billions were being spent on the UN's Oil for Food Programme.
And Rodney told me to get out of his way. My judgmental fixation was messing up the action. Like Rick, I had to do what the character knew was best. Now that I'm not breathing down his neck, Rod is hot on the trail of a corrupt colonel from ten years before. And I'm just doing the typing.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Am I trying to craft, then hone my sentences to perfect, burnished brilliance? No. I'm just trying to put the right words in my characters’ mouths. Even though I knew exactly where the plot was going, they’d gone on strike, refusing to speak their lines.
On Saturday morning, I’d had enough, grabbed all six of them in the scene and dragged them out for a very long walk. Fortunately, the weather north of the 49th, where November can be a very fickle month, cooperated enough that I didn't have to slog through six inches of wet snow for the several hours of hard thinking and conversation with my invisible friends.
Stepping out of the house, I asked them, “What’s wrong? Why have you guys clammed up on me?”
Fortunately, this has happened to me once before with the notoriously difficult Victoria Morgan in Cemetery of the Nameless, so I tried the same tack I used that time: “Okay. Tell me where I let you down.”
Seemed that, back two chapters, my main character in this story (also female – which should tell me something) was quite unhappy with the stance I’d made her take on a crucial turning point in the plot. At the time, I’d thought that this was certainly the way she’d behave in this particular situation based on everything that had happened earlier in the novel. Not so, in this case. She wanted to do the complete opposite. Women...
It took another few miles for her to open up completely, explaining her feelings and stating her case for how she thought I should end the book. In the end, I had to agree that she was right.
“Okay,” I said to the whole motley crew, “if I scrap those two intervening chapters, will you guys behave?”
“Yes!” they all promised, but I didn’t completely believe them.
So we trudged back home, however, with a hopeful smiles and more of a spring in our steps. Once again seated in front of my trusty computer, I pressed delete twice (my deal with them), the offending chapters were binarily vaporized and I set to work.
You know what? She was absolutely right.
God damn, I love writing.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Monday, November 10, 2008
Vicki here with a question for other writers. How do you feel about providing your own books to a bookstore for a signing?
I’m not talking about a library talk or a craft show or some such thing where there isn’t anyone else to provide your books, so you load your boxes into the trunk of your car and head off for the day.
But a regular bookstore, that is part of a big chain of bookstores?
Point in question – I did a signing on Saturday. I arranged the signing in the summer, but the store didn’t get my books in. Whether they bothered to order them or not is, at this juncture, a moot point.
I brought my own. Financially speaking, let’s examine the prospect. I get the books from my publisher at the author’s discount of 50%. On top of that I pay shipping, and because my publisher is in the U.S., brokerage fees and G.S.T. I take the risk of buying too many books, because, unlike sales to a bookstore, they are not returnable. The books I purchase myself do not count towards my royalties, or to that all important number of books sold. (I.e. If I buy 10,000 copies of my book and give it as Christmas presents to 10,000 of my closest friends, Booksense – where publishers and agents look to see how the book is doing - will record that I have 0 sales).
For the privilege of giving me a table in the middle of the store, the bookstore takes 40% of the selling price. Therefore, once I’ve paid 50% of the cover price to get the book, 40% to the bookstore, plus G.S.T. and shipping fees (and let’s not get into whether the Canadian dollar is doing well or not which is a big factor) I might even be in the red.
With my first book, at one store I had to provide my own books for a signing, again at a big box store (Rick was my tour partner at that event) in June. After constant e-mails and phone calls, they finally sent me a cheque in January. Frankly, it wasn’t worth the stress of trying to get my money.
So why do it – well I sold a lot of books to people who wouldn’t otherwise have read them. Hopefully, those people will be looking out for the next book. I gave out a ton of my bookmarks and handouts, so perhaps some of those people will go away and decide later to get the book. However, if they return to the store where they met me they won’t find the book on the shelves, will they, because they were never in stock. Will they care enough to order it, or to buy online? Who knows.
What do you other authors out there do if a big box store doesn’t get your books in? Go ahead with the signing, or say “perhaps another time.”?
Sunday, November 09, 2008
Today’s special guest blogger is Jeri Westerson. Her debut mystery, Veil of Lies is out now from St. Martin’s Press. Be sure to visit her website by clicking here. (Note: I sure hope I can get Jeri to agree to appear at NoirCon in 2010. She’s got the right stuff. CB)
First off, the reason I'm here is to talk about my debut "Medieval Noir" Veil of Lies. It's not your grandfather's medieval mystery. It's its own little subgenre and features a hard-boiled-disgraced-knight-turned-detective on the mean streets of 14th century London. I didn't come to this idea lightly. It took some thinking, some researching, and a lot of great reading. But before we go into that, we've got to talk about "noir."
It's funny how the conversation about "Noir" as a concept is discussed and mulled and used as college course topics. Ross McDonald must be having a hearty laugh up there…or…down there?
I know that some prefer to keep noir where it came from: post industrialization, post modernist's German expressionist's view of the collapse of society's morals and loss of traditional roles or roles turned on its head.
But who says this has to be a modern concept?
We tend to think of our own era as the worst one, this breakdown of society beginning with the hiss of the first stroke of a steam piston:
"I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint."
Some lament by a latter day Upton Sinclair? It was actually attributed to Greek poet Hesiod, in the eighth century B.C. Feelings of isolation, sin running amok, collapse of society, hopelessness; these aren't modern concepts at all. There is "nothing new under the sun," says the Bible, and in fact, the Bible could be considered a helluva noir classic itself, especially the Old Testament before, as Mark Twain put it, God got religion.
So how do I see "noir" and how the hell does it have anything to do with the Middle Ages?
Noir, to me, is at once milieu and emotion. It's quite literally the black and the bleak. It's shadows and the dark longings in the soul. The medieval period seems perfect for this set up.
Don't get me wrong. I have great affection for the Middle Ages (a period roughly between 500 AD—known as the "Early Middle Ages" not the "Dark Ages"—and 1500 AD, the cusp of the Renaissance). My specialty period—the Late Middle Ages in 14th century England—was a fascinating social study of codes of conduct, rights of passage, a huge merchant class, wars, courtly love, intrigue, and the development of English as a language. So I never took the whole "dark" thing in a disrespectful sense (in other words, these weren't the "Dark Ages" where everyone just waited around until they'd all be enlightened by the Renaissance). No, it's dark in the sense of a brooding landscape, in the huddling around candlelight or the meager flames from one's hearth in a drafty hovel. To our "modern" sensibilities, there were also some less literal "dark" aspects to the time period. The Church, for instance, was all encompassing. Even the passage of time was regulated by the Church in that the days were enumerated by the communion of saints on the calendar and the hours of the day were ticked off by the canonical hours by which monks prayed throughout the day in the Divine Office, ringing bells to announce them. Though this and other Church doings were not necessarily deemed oppressive at the time, there were some who questioned the Church's interference in all matters public and private. But when individuals sought to change them, they ended up on the wrong side of a noose.
Many laws were in place to protect England's citizens, and indeed, these citizens made good use of it by suing one another. But not all laws were all good all the time, and the penalties could be quite severe. Corruption in high places is not a new concept. The sheriffs of London were appointed into these unpaid positions and found their own way through bribery to make their time count.
Each person was expected to live by a code, but if you were a courtier, your codes might be stauncher than others. A knight, for instance, owed his allegiance to an overlord and to the king, and if that code was breached, woe betide him.
This is the noir of my imagining. The dark places kept hidden in one's soul, the sense of hopelessness and frustration. And in one disgraced knight, the dark paths a man must travel to keep his tattered honor in tact.
Saturday, November 08, 2008
Oh, just dandy. Now I’m longing to see beautiful Rochester, NY. I may have mentioned before that I’ve not spent a great deal of time in the Northeastern part of this great country of ours. (Which puts me in mind of Rick Blechta’s remark that if I think Teaneck New Jersey is exotic, I need to get out more.)
No, I am in fact very much a Southwesterner. I’ve lived in Oklahoma, Texas, and Arizona for the great bulk of my life, and there is much to love about that fact. I’d go about with my video camera and give you a tour of my beautiful Tempe, Arizona, Dear Readers, but for the fact that I don’t have a video camera other than the camera on my iMac, which is not handy to the purpose, to say the least. So, I content myself with posting a couple of pictures for your enjoyment. The big one is of Tempe’s main street, Mill Avenue, where I had my shop for eleven years (Just up the street on the right). The little one is of the library at Arizona State University, where in my younger days I was the Government Documents Librarian.
Now that my exercise in civic pride is finished, I’ll remind you all that today is the last day to go over to my website for Trick or Treat. Leave a comment, and you’ll automatically be entered in a drawing for a signed copy of my upcoming book, The Sky Took Him.
Tomorrow, I'll be spending the day in Queen Creek, at the grand opening of their new library. They asked me to sit at a table and sell/sign books, along with several other local authors, from 10 to 2.
On November 16, I’ll be the Mistress of Ceremonies at the annual Authors and Auction fundraiser. I’ll be hosting Nancy E. Turner (These Is My Words), Frederick Ramsay (Stranger Room), and J.M. Hayes (Broken Heartland). This should be a great event, so if anyone is in the vicinity, go by http://authorsandauction.com and check it out.
Then I'm done for the rest of the year, publicity-wise. Thank God, because with all of Don's stuff I am so far behind on planning publicity for the new book it just makes me want to cry. And don't even get me started about the NEXT book.
And, speaking of my upcoming book, the launch for The Sky Took Him has finally been set for January 17, a Saturday, at 2 p.m., at Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ. They are having me do the event by myself, rather than paired with another author, so I'm going to do whatever it takes to guilt, beg, and/or strong-arm everyone with whom I have the slightest acquaintance to come and bring the family and the neighbors. I can just see myself sitting there all by myself, twisting in the wind - my editor Barbara at my side thinking "Now, why are we publishing her books?" For one terror-filled moment, it occurred to me that the 17th might be Inauguration Day, but I dodged that bullet. I wouldn't even show up if that were the case.
So mark your calendars, Dear Ones, and if you don’t live near, check out the flight schedules. January is a great time to be here, in any event.
Friday, November 07, 2008
Tuesday, November 04, 2008
The winner of 2008 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is Garrison Spik (pronounced "speak"), a 41-year-old communications director and writer from Washington, D.C. Hailing from Moon Township, Pennsylvania, he has worked in Tokyo, Bucharest, and Nitro, West Virginia, and cites DEVO, Nathaniel Hawthorne, B horror films, and historiography as major life influences.
Garrison Spik is the 26th grand prize winner of the contest that began at San Jose State University in 1982.
An international literary parody contest, the competition honors the memory (if not the reputation) of Victorian novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873). The goal of the contest is childishly simple: entrants are challenged to submit bad opening sentences to imaginary novels. Although best known for "The Last Days of Pompeii" (1834), which has been made into a movie three times, originating the expression "the pen is mightier than the sword," and phrases like "the great unwashed" and "the almighty dollar," Bulwer-Lytton opened his novel Paul Clifford (1830) with the immortal words that the "Peanuts" beagle Snoopy plagiarized for years, "It was a dark and stormy night."
2008 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest Winner
Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped "Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J."
—Garrison Spik, Washington, D.C.
And of course, we must honour those in the Detective category:
Mike Hummer had been a private detective so long he could remember Preparation A, his hair reminded everyone of a rat who'd bitten into an electrical cord, but he could still run faster than greased owl snot when he was on a bad guy's trail, and they said his friskings were a lot like getting a vasectomy at Sears.
—Robert B. Robeson, Lincoln, Nebraska
The hardened detective glanced at his rookie partner and mused that who ever had coined the term "white as a sheet" had never envisioned a bed accessorized with a set of Hazelnut, 500-count Egyptian cotton linens from Ralph Lauren complimented by matching shams and a duvet cover nor the dismembered body of its current occupant.
—Russ Winter, Janesville, MN
If you want (or dare) to read the rest, you can visit: www.bulwer-lytton.com
Monday, November 03, 2008
What’s worse than having no one show up to hear you speak? One person coming. If no one comes, you can go home, if one person is in the audience you have to talk.
Anyway, reading Charles’s entry from Friday reminded me of one of the ten best things about being a mystery writer.
You have to be a reader.
You’re sitting in your pyjamas at noon, cup of tea at elbow, stereo playing in the background, reading. If someone tells you to get up off your lazy a** and get to work, you reply that you are working, can’t they tell?
My colleague, the author Betty Webb (http://www.bettywebb-mystery.com/) gives classes on creative writing and tells her students: “If they are not reading at least 5 books a month, their future as a writer is dim.” One of my favourite how-to-write books is On Writing by Stephen King. King says if you want to be a writer you have to do two things: You have to read and you have to write.
Can I give an example of this principle? Thank you for asking. I’ve read an enormous number of books in my life and I still read a lot. I’ve also written several books and had them published. You’d think I’d know how to do it by now. Last night I was reading Voices by Arnaldur Indridason. (Translated from the Icelandic, the Detective Erlendur novels are just fantastic – very dark and gritty without being violent, the story is all in the characters). About half-way in a couple of minor characters stroll across the stage, so to speak. I blinked at the way he described them, and had to read it a couple of times in order to appreciate it.
He was old and frail and in a wheelchair; and she followed behind, short and slim, with a thin, hooked nose and tough, piercing eyes that scoured the lobby. And on for several more sentences.
I ran to my desk and re-read something I’d written earlier that day. A minor character is described along the lines of “she had blond hair and blue eyes.”
You get the idea. I have some work to do.
I’ll admit that there are people who truly have no time in their life to read. These people probably have no time to write either. But everyone’s life changes as time passes and jobs get easier and kids grow up and the dog and the husband learn to feed themselves.
Think you still don’t have time to read? Let me ask you this? Did you watch TV last night*? Then you have time to read.
*Okay, last night it was okay to put the book to one side and watch TV, this election stuff is rather important.
Sunday, November 02, 2008
Let’s see, what can I tell you without any spoilers, just in case it ever gets published? To start with the germ of it, I envisioned a woman who is definitely not a role model or an expression of part of the author’s character, good or bad. And it’s a bit of an urban fantasy, which I’m told is the correct term even though it takes place on a beach. I started out knowing the ending. And that’s all I had when I sat down at the computer and typed in the title.
I started with the woman on the beach, using third person—which changes my voice and my vocabulary considerably from the series I’ve been writing—setting the scene. And all of a sudden there was this guy lying on a chaise longue. Where did he come from? In the 19th century they called it “the Muse.” In New Age terms, I channeled him. I grew up hearing—so I guess it’s the 20th century version—“Creativity is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent persperation.” So this must be inspiration. Since I’m a shrink, I could reframe it (another shrink concept) as coming from the unconscious—my own or, if I were a Jungian, which I’m not, the collective unconscious. I like the word “intuition.”
I know some writers who construct their characters deliberately. They’ll say, “Let’s see, I want to hit the ‘hen lit’ market, so I’ll make my protagonist a divorcée. She’s got to have a quirk, so I’ll have her walk with a limp—no, a broken leg, she’ll have the challenge of sleuthing while she’s in a cast and on crutches. And I need a hook, so I’ll make her an innkeeper. A sculptor. A carnival clown.” I don’t write that way.
So all of a sudden, there’s this guy. His name is Harry—no, Harvey. Harvey Gladstone. Not too ethnic, not too vanilla. If I’d tried to call him anything but Harvey, it would have bugged me every time I used the name until I changed it. He’s recently divorced, not too successful at his job, worried about money (as who isn’t these days). In other words, he’s a perfect mark for my dangerous woman.
Writing from intuition is like hang gliding. You never know what current will swoop you up, and you have no choice but to go with it. And you land—well, if you’re lucky, you land somewhere in the vicinity of where you meant to. You can expect to be surprised. And I was surprised—very surprised indeed—when without conscious volition I found myself writing sexy. I had planned to have my woman seduce someone, and when Harvey appeared, he was fated to be seduced. But I hadn’t meant to write an erotic short story. I don’t do erotic. I don’t even much like reading other authors’ sexually explicit scenes. What I wrote or channeled or intuited is minimally explicit. But—how can I put this? my body told me I was writing erotic.
So now the problem is this: where on earth will I find a market for a suspenseful, mildly sexually explicit urban fantasy short story? Answers welcome!
Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist whose debut mystery from St. Martin’s, Death Will Get You Sober, begins a series that will continue with Death Will Help You Leave Him. A related short story, “Death Will Clean Your Closet,” won an Agatha nomination for Best Short Story. Liz’s website is www.elizabethzelvin.com. She blogs on Poe’s Deadly Daughters.
Saturday, November 01, 2008
Happy All Saints from Donis. From 1988 to 1999, I ran a little shop and sold gift items which I imported from Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. For a decade, I was immersed in the Celtic culture. Yesterday and today are very important days in the Celtic calendar, for at midnight between Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead thins, and we may actually be able to see one another.
All those Celtic peoples who came to the New World early on and settled on the frontiers and the back woods, from whom many, many of us descend, myself included, had a view of existence that is very different from the modern way of looking at things. We wonder how such realistic and practical people could have so readily believed in ghosts and haints and contact with the dead. It had to be because they were ignorant and uneducated, we think, and obviously not as smart as we are.
But I say, au contraire, my friends. As I travel through this life, I begin to have an intimation that things are not necessarily what they seem. We perceive the world as we have been taught to do. We see what we are looking for.
My great-grandmother, whom I was privileged to know when I was a girl, knew there were spirits abroad just as firmly as she knew the sky was blue. She had seen them, and she believed the evidence of her own eyes. Did she really see them, or was she deluded? I’ve never seen a ghost. Am I realistic, or am I blind? How does a sighted person convince someone who has never seen that there is a color blue?
My protagonist, Alafair, perceives the universe in the same way my great-grandmother did, and I do not judge her for that. In fact, maybe I’m a bit envious.
So happy Samhain (pronounce that SHAW-win), Dear Readers, a festival better known as Halloween, All Souls Day, and Celtic New Year. For your treat this year, drop in at my website (www.doniscasey.com), pick up your recipe, and leave me a comment between now and Nov. 8. I’ll drop your e-mail address in a hat for a drawing to win a copy of my newest book, The Sky Took Him, which will be released in January. Alafair, you will discover, is not the only member of her family who can pierce the veil between the worlds, and not think anything of it.